Johannesburg (AFP) – Nelson Mandela, the revered icon of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and one of the towering political figures of the 20th century, has died aged 95.
Mandela, who was elected South Africa’s first black president after spending nearly three decades in prison, had been receiving treatment for a lung infection at his Johannesburg home since September, after three months in hospital in a critical state.
His condition deteriorated and he died following complications from the lung infection, with his family by his side.
The news was announced by a clearly emotional South African president Jacob Zuma live on television, who said Mandela had “departed” and was at peace.
“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” said Zuma.
“What made Nelson Mandela great is precisely what made him human,” he said.
Mandela, once a boxer, had a long history of lung problems after contracting tuberculosis while in jail on Robben Island.
His extraordinary life story, quirky sense of humor and lack of bitterness towards his former oppressors ensured global appeal for the charismatic leader.
Once considered a terrorist by the United States and Britain for his support of violence against the apartheid regime, at the time of his death he was an almost unimpeachable moral icon.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner spent 27 years behind bars before being freed in 1990 to lead the African National Congress (ANC) in negotiations with the white minority rulers which culminated in the first multi-racial elections in 1994.
A victorious Mandela served a single term as president before taking up a new role as a roving elder statesman and leading AIDS campaigner before finally retiring from public life in 2004.
“When he emerged from prison people discovered that he was all the things they had hoped for and more,” fellow Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said.
“He is by far the most admired and revered statesperson in the world and one of the greatest human beings to walk this earth.”
He was a global cause celebre during the long apartheid years, and popular pressure led world leaders to tighten sanctions imposed on South Africa’s racist white minority regime.
In 1988 at a concert in Wembley stadium in London, tens of thousands sang “Free Nelson Mandela” as millions more watched on their television sets across the world.
Born in July 1918 in the southeastern Transkei region, Mandela carved out a career as a lawyer in Johannesburg in parallel with his political activism.
He became commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the by now-banned ANC, in 1961, and the following year underwent military training in Algeria and Ethiopia.
While underground back home in South Africa, Mandela was captured by police in 1962 and sentenced to five years in prison.
He was then charged with sabotage and sentenced in 1964 to life in prison at the Rivonia trial, named after a Johannesburg suburb where a number of ANC leaders were arrested.
He used the court hearing to deliver a speech that was to become the manifesto of the anti-apartheid movement.